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Issue #1607      August 21, 2013

Work without dignity

Well done to all those who demonstrated outside Sports Direct last weekend – on what we call a “slow news day” they managed to win excellent publicity for the scandal of zero-hours contracts. This malign employment practice is rife throughout Britain’s retail sector and is now spreading into education, manufacturing and even hospitals.

It has been revealed that even a number of local authorities, including Labour-controlled Brent, employ people on these contracts. Quite simply a zero-hours contract is the perfect relationship for an employer to have towards an employee. The employee has no notion of their likely income and is unable to plan their life in any way or take any other work.

If they rely on benefits they face the nightmare of having to claim a different amount every week. The employee also has no rights. Thanks to the Con-Dems workers have to be employed for two years before they can take an unfair dismissal case to an employment tribunal, but whether zero-hours staff can even do this is unclear, since their legal status – employee, worker or self-employed – is often murky.

These conditions are the scourge of our age. It is a crying shame that while the last Parliament did manage to regulate employment agencies to some extent and introduced the gangmasters legislation, it did nothing to outlaw zero-hours contracts or give trade unions in Britain the same level of protection they enjoy elsewhere in Europe.

We are joining the “race to the bottom” in terms of rights at work and the “flexible labour force” so beloved of Peter Mandelson and his new Labour acolytes.

The campaign against zero-hours contracts must be seen in the context of huge public-sector job losses, probably approaching half a million, since the start of the economic crisis, and the re-employment of some of those redundant workers in the private sector.

In almost all cases, the private-sector jobs these workers have taken are on lower wages, with inferior working conditions, lack pensions and are more insecure. This is a sort of dreamland for Chancellor George Osborne, whose ideal is an economy in which workers’ insecurity boosts profits for business.

The government claims that unemployment is falling as new jobs become available.

However, recent figures show that 7.8 percent of the workforce are not working. That’s 2.51 million people out of work, around half of whom have been searching for work for over two years, the highest figure since 1997.

What’s also scandalous is the number of young people out of work – nudging towards the one million mark across Britain.

It’s less than the 57 percent youth unemployment rate in Greece or the shocking Spanish rate of 70 percent, but it is still frighteningly high. More and more bored and increasingly bitter young people are hanging around waiting for something to do. We are in danger of creating an entire lost generation of young people who are unable to get any kind of secure employment on leaving school, college or university.

The social consequences of this will be as dire as the consequences of mass unemployment in the 1930s and 1980s. Real wages, that is wages adjusted for inflation, continue to fall.

However, one person’s misery seems to be another person’s success in the new Britain. The UN human development report came out this week with the astonishing assertion that inequality in Britain is growing faster than anywhere else among OECD nations. It’s now among the highest of any of them.

A combination of high profiteering and low wages has made some shareholders and company chief executives extraordinarily rich.

While there is an understandable – and correct – furore over the salaries of some charity chief execs these pale into insignificance compared to the mobile phone-number salaries of most bank CEOs.

In the midst of the crisis facing millions of people in Britain the Tory Party is obsessed with the supposedly excessive power of trade unions, and unfortunately the Labour leadership seems to have fallen into the trap of this debate.

This isn’t doing the party’s fortunes any good, and indeed is deeply dispiriting to many of its activists and supporters. A letter published in yesterday’s “I” newspaper is typical. Labour supporter Brian Dooley wrote: “The Labour Party has moved too far to the right – it allows the Tories to set its agenda, has abandoned socialism, has become compliant to the coalition and provides no alternative to the draconian austerity measures.”

Labour’s forthcoming Brighton conference should start by moving in a different direction. The benefit cap so beloved of Iain Duncan Smith affects 700 families in my borough alone. Some will be forced to move away from their families, schools or jobs simply to survive in the feverish London property market.

The bedroom tax is presented by the coalition as a way of sharing out hard-pressed council accommodation, yet in reality it’s a penalty on families who have nowhere to go even if they wanted to move.

It’s just a way of cutting the funds of families who desperately need the money.

Reality television encourages this whole debate by endlessly focusing on so-called scroungers.

Maybe the BBC and other media outlets could take a walk round the centre of any of our big cities and see the number of homeless and street sleepers who have been cruelly cast aside by the destruction of our welfare state.

Quite bluntly, if the labour movement doesn’t stand up for the principles of the welfare safety net and the right to universal services such as the NHS remaining free, then they will be so eroded they will disappear.

The 60 years from the 1940s on will be seen historically as a lost golden age when we tried to become a civilised society. The protests planned in Manchester on September 29 are thus not just a demonstration outside the Tory Party conference.

They are a way of putting pressure on the government over the NHS and welfare, and also of sending a stern message to MPs of all parties – including Labour – that they have a duty to protect the great achievements of the welfare state, including the NHS.

Pernicious message of exclusion

Images of burly uniformed Home Office officials stopping people at London railway stations over the last few days – accompanied by an advertising van touring the streets of Brent telling “illegals” to go home - typify the nasty image of Theresa May and this government.

These officials are apparently told to apprehend anyone who appears to be, for example, avoiding eye contact or walking away from them in a station – behaviours which are obviously indicative of illegally migrating to this country.

As of last week the details of 139 “suspects” had been taken. The officers will move on to different parts of London and no doubt other cities.

A lot of people are, quite rightly, appalled at this – and soon enough the process is bound to be contracted out to G4S or some similarly seedy security company. There are people who are surviving in Britain without any papers giving them the permanent right to remain.

Many of them have been here a very long time and do their best to support their families and others. More often than not they are the victims of the unbelievable inefficiency of the Home Office through losing files, not responding to letters and making wholly irrational decisions about the safety of someone’s return to another country.

Instead of the brutality of racially profiling people on the streets, we should look instead at the human vulnerability of people who have often fled wars or torture to seek a safe haven in Britain.

A year ago London’s mayor and the British government were bending over backwards to show the world what a success a multicultural city like London is.

Now they seem more like the English Defence League in their inhuman approach to human suffering.

Morning Star  

Next article – Culture & Life – Housing – luxurious, makeshift and haunted

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